The Last Crusaders I

The crenellated towers and walls of the Castle of St Peter brood defiantly over the southern end of the Aegean Sea; the mighty fortress is one of the most spectacular and best-preserved crusading castles of the fifteenth century.

The Hospitallers started building it soon after 1406, and from its battlements the Knights kept watch on the sea approaches to their island of Rhodes, less than a day’s sail away to the east along the coast. St Peter’s Castle at Bodrum was part of a network of fortresses throughout the Hospitaller-controlled Dodecanese islands, but this was the Knights’ only foothold on the mainland of Asia Minor. The French Tower, at the highest point in the castle, was the first to be built; more towers were added and a system of walls and bastions gradually covered the promontory that forms one side of the picturesque fishing harbour at Bodrum. Other ‘tongues’, including the English, also had formidable towers and as cannon began to play a part in siege warfare, massive gun emplacements were added to the fortifications later in the fifteenth century.

The Knights acquired this mainland enclave as a result of the ferment of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century when the Mongol ruler, Tamurlane, invaded Syria and Asia Minor. Smyrna (the modern Izmir), along with the other mainland cities, fell to the Mongols in 1402, but the Hospitallers having lost that important city quickly re-established themselves at Bodrum. Ottoman power had suddenly been eclipsed by the Tartar ruler, and Turkish expansion was halted momentarily. The sultan’s plan to take Constantinople had to be shelved, giving Byzantium a reprieve, but when Tamurlane died in 1405 his empire began to disintegrate and with it went any chance of constraining the resurgence of Ottoman power. As soon as the Knights had acquired the site at Bodrum for their new fortress, Master Philibert of Naillac went off on an extensive tour of Europe to raise funds for the building. He was well received by the Pope who issued an indulgence to anyone willing to put up money, and we know that in England indulgences could be obtained for the castle fund throughout the fifteenth century.

Money came in from all over Europe but there is a strong hint that the English nobility must have dug deeply into their pockets, because emblazoned on one wall of the English Tower that was built in about 1414 there is a line of fifteenth-century coats of arms. The centrepiece of this display is a great shield, four times the size of the others, with the carved arms of Henry IV – that enthusiastic crusader who had reysed at least twice with the Teutonic Knights in Prussia. He had clearly made a substantial contribution to the building of St Peter’s Castle along with more than a score of lesser nobles and members of the Royal Family. The well-preserved interior of the English tower is today popular with visitors who are sometimes surprised by the appearance of a monkish-looking figure, his cloak emblazoned with the white starred cross of the Order, who takes charge of crumhorn and tabor recorded mood music. More authentic knights, who were not grand enough to have their arms carved into the battlements – about two hundred survive in various parts of the castle – just scratched their names in the stone while they were on duty. These medieval graffiti are clear evidence of the many different nations represented in the garrison.

Parts of the castle were constructed from the masonry that once adorned the ancient mausoleum of Halikarnassos, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, which the Knights found in a ruined state on the mainland overlooking Bodrum harbour. The ancient site was a convenient quarry and supplied about forty per cent of the stone they needed to build the great medieval fortress. That estimate has been made by archaeologists who, in recent years, have crawled all over the castle spotting and measuring the building material taken from the mausoleum, and, with the aid of a computer, have put together a plan of one of the world’s missing wonders.

During the short time that Tamurlane held sway in Asia Minor and Syria crusading activity was revived and, while plans for the castle of Bodrum were going ahead, the Hospitallers took part in raids along the Muslim-held coastline of Asia Minor. The fleet of galleys, commanded by Marshal Boucicault, attacked the Turkish port of Alanya, and would have sailed south to Alexandria if contrary winds had not changed the Marshal’s mind.

Instead, this Frenchman, who was Governor of Genoa, attacked Tripoli and Beirut. Boucicault may have been planning another attack in 1407, but as the Turks re-established their position in the East there were fewer opportunities for crusaders to overrun mainland strongholds. The end of the great schism in the West – the general recognition of one Pope instead of two or three – released much more papal energy into crusading. Pope Martin V tried to organize crusades to help the Latin settlements under pressure in the Aegean and, when the Turks laid siege to Constantinople in 1422, he worked for a naval league in which the Hospitallers, Venetians, Genoese and Milanese would take part.

But these efforts were to meet with little success because Christendom was preoccupied with a new heresy in Bohemia’s church. The new heretical threat came from the Hussites, followers of the Czech reformer, John Hus, who had been burned at the stake in 1415. The Hussites wanted both bread and wine at communion for the laity, clerical misdemeanours to be publicly condemned, the freedom to preach, and a review of the church’s material wealth. They were vocal about what they regarded as the iniquitous practice of giving indulgences to Christians to fight other Christians and in 1418 Pope Martin agreed that they would have to be suppressed by force.

King Sigismund of Hungary, who had featured in the crusading defeat at Nicopolis, and was now Western emperor-elect, organized a series of crusades between 1420 and 1431 against the Hussites, whose sense of Czech nationalism and disaffection with the established church resulted in a spirited defence of their lands in Bohemia. As in the Albigensian Crusade and the political wars in Italy, crusaders came from many parts of Europe, and Sigismund’s armies included English, Dutch, Swiss, French and Spanish knights. Much Christian blood was spilled in ten years of fighting and eventually the Hussites were overcome, not by the crusaders, but by the Bohemian nobility itself, although tension and outbreaks of trouble continued well into the second half of the fifteenth century. It was another example of how internal threats were always regarded more seriously than external ones. Sigismund, who had, after all, called for the Crusade of Nicopolis, must have been very conscious of the growing danger to both Eastern and Western Christianity posed by the Turkish sultan, Murad II.

In 1443 Pope Eugenius IV, having won the submission of the Eastern Orthodox Church to Rome, preached a new crusade designed to defend the Christian East against the Turks. There was little response, except from the ‘front line’ countries along the Danube. John Hunyadi, the ruler of Transylvania, led an army that routed the Turks at Nish, and in the following year, 1444, he marched to the Black Sea port of Varna leading an army of 20,000 across the Balkans. Hunyadi and King Ladislas of Hungary planned to continue their advance down the coast towards Constantinople but the sultan moved up reinforcements – some say in chartered Genoese transports – and the crusading forces were almost wiped out. Ladislas was killed but Hunyadi survived and, as long as he lived, kept the Turks from crossing the Danube. He did not, however, put in an appearance during the next major crisis for the Christian world.

The arrival of about 1,000 stonemasons at the narrowest point of the Bosphorus in 1452 was a bad augury for the citizens of Constantinople. The sultan, Mehmet II, had brought them, and an equal number of labourers, to construct a castle on the Bosphorus, about 6 miles from Constantinople, that was part of a strategy to bring down the encircled centre of eastern Christendom. For their part the Byzantines had been under threat for a century. Under Mehmet’s father, Sultan Murad II, perhaps the status quo would have been maintained, but his nineteen-year-old son was driven by a desire to take Constantinople at all costs. The towers and walls of Mehmet’s siege castle on the Bosphorus – Boghaz-Kezen or ‘Cutter of the Throat’ – are still a spectacular sight on the hillside overlooking the busy waterway. The castle is now called Rumeli Hisar and from its ramparts cannon could control any traffic passing to or from the Black Sea; indeed, the castle’s efficacy was soon tested when a Venetian galley ignored signals to heave to and was rudely stopped by an iron ball crashing through her timbers. During the construction of the castle the Byzantine emperor, Constantine, sent an envoy to the sultan seeking an assurance that his new fortress was not for offensive purposes. The envoy’s decapitation was a clear answer to the query.

Constantine’s capital in the mid-fifteenth century was a weak and tatty reflection of its splendid past. The population of 100,000 was not nearly enough to fill the vast area enclosed by 14 miles of walls. Much of the city, which may once have boasted a million inhabitants, had reverted to pasture and villages; and centres of population had developed their own identities behind stout walls and locked gates. During the first half of the fifteenth century, travellers reported that the city was full of ruins and that people were suffering from poverty. The great imperial palace had been left ruinous by the last Latin emperor after he had taken all the lead off the roofs and sold it; the once splendid Hippodrome was crumbling, but the University functioned and there was an active intellectual life in a city that still contained pockets of wealth and luxury. Predictably, the Venetian quarter was prosperous and the great Basilica of St Sophia was in good repair, still lavishly decorated with wonderful mosaics and frescoes. The Genoese had their own colony of Pera opposite the city across the Golden Horn, but the suburbs on the Asian side of the Bosphorus had long been incorporated into the Muslim world. Mehmet’s castle on the Bosphorus was finished in August 1452, not long before Emperor Constantine sent out an urgent appeal to the major centres of Christian influence. In view of the recent union of the Greek Orthodox and Catholic Churches, the Byzantines expected military support, but no significant help was forthcoming, only expressions of concern and vague promises. The Genoese and Venetians were loath to do anything that would disturb their profitable trade with the Muslims, and any sense of urgency was dispelled by a widely held view that Constantinople could withstand any siege indefinitely. The walls were in good condition all the way round and were still famous throughout the medieval world for their strength and sophistication. The triple defensive system of the 4-mile-long land walls comprised a 60ft moat, a low, crenellated retaining wall, a wide access space, a 25ft-high outer wall with towers, and finally the massive 40ft-high main wall with square and octagonal towers every 50 or 60 yards.

The emperor, however, decided that there were not enough troops to man the inner wall and the Turks would have to be stopped at the outer line of defence. Only about 5,000 Greeks and 2,000 foreigners were available to defend the city – a number that included 700 Genoese led by Giovanni Giustiniani Longo. With Emperor Constantine, this aristocratic warrior organized the defence of the city that would soon face a Muslim army of about 80,000. The Christian troops were well equipped with the best armour of the day and would defend the city with mangonels, culverines, javelins and arrows. The army the sultan was directing from his red and gold pavilion in front of the land walls had many regiments that were less well-equipped – especially the first-wave shock troops – but he had invested in some new and devastating artillery. The biggest piece had a bronze barrel nearly 27ft long which fired 12cwt balls at targets over a mile away. To move this monster of a gun from the foundry in Adrianople needed sixty oxen and 200 men, and the bridges all the way down the road had to be specially strengthened. The sultan had also assembled a huge fleet of about 150 ships to blockade the sea approaches to Constantinople, but before that became effective seven Venetian ships slipped quietly out of the harbour with hundreds of Italians on board whom the city could ill afford to lose at that time.

On 6 April 1453, the bombardment began. The sultan’s artillery pounded the land walls where the river Lycus ran under the defences and across the city to the Sea of Marmara. As masonry cracked and splintered it crashed down with a deafening roar, leaving rubble-strewn gaps which the defenders would try to patch with timber and earth stockades. Whenever there was a pause in the artillery fire, Muslim soldiers would move forward with materials to fill in the moat and, as the wall crumbled, the sultan moved his crack regiment, the Janissaries, into position. These troops were not unlike the Mamluks of Egypt in the way they were recruited – young Christian slaves who were schooled in Turkish and steeped in the Muslim faith. To a raucous accompaniment of oboes, cymbals and drums, the janissaries charged, but the earthen and timber stockade held and they were forced to withdraw.

In the meantime, ten Christian galleys protecting the iron boom across the Golden Horn had successfully beaten off attacks by Muslim ships and, in mid-April, three galleys sent by the Pope forced their way through the blockade and reached the Golden Horn with holds full of food and armaments. While the sultan’s artillery was slowly grinding down sections of the land wall, his navy made no progress at all in breaking through the great chain that closed off the Golden Horn, so an ingenious plan was conceived.

Huge wooden cradles with wheels were built and taken to the edge of the Bosphorus to rendezvous with a section of the Muslim blockading fleet. After the ships were floated into these cradles, teams of oxen hauled them along a newly constructed road up the hillside and then overland to the middle reaches of the Golden Horn. The chain had been bypassed by a procession of galleys with pennants flying and rowers in position beating the air with their oars in rhythm to the galley officer’s beat.

The fleet of seventy Muslim vessels now deployed behind the chain could not only harrass Christian shipping but also threaten the less well-defended harbour walls. The Genoese colony of Pera continued its policy of neutrality, but contact with the beleaguered city across the water was now more difficult. The Greeks anxiously watched the sea approaches for the Western rescue fleet, but the only sails on the Sea of Marmara were Muslim ones, and towards the end of May the Byzantines realized that they were on their own. The city had withstood seven weeks of almost continuous bombardment and had repulsed several full-scale attempts to storm the walls. Then suddenly, at midnight on 27 May, all Turkish military activity stopped. The sultan had ordered a day of rest and prayer before his next major offensive. Commanders on both sides inspected their troops and in the unaccustomed silence the bells of Constantinople’s churches rang out, and religious processions wound through the streets while prayers were said for the salvation of the city.

The assault came in a roar of gunfire soon after midnight on 29 May when, with trumpets blaring and drums beating, thousands of Turks hurled themselves against the walls; throughout the city church bells pealed again to call the people to the walls and, after several hours, the attackers fell back.

The sultan launched another wave of troops at the walls after the giant cannon had brought down a section of the stockade. Again the defenders pushed the Turks back with fierce hand-to-hand fighting, but by then, with attacks aimed at many different points around the city, the thinly spread defenders were wearying. The end came quickly after a party of Turkish troops at the northern end of the land walls noticed that a sally port had been left open and unguarded. The Turks poured in and made their way up on to the battlements. At about the same time the Genoese commander, Giustiniani, was wounded and pleaded to be taken away from the battle.

The emperor gave permission, and as the wounded soldier was conveyed through the streets a rumour spread that the city was already lost. Giustiniani’s Genoese troops abandoned the walls as the sultan led his Janissaries in another attack on the weakened defences. The Turks came over the wall and nothing could hold them back. Emperor Constantine, whose namesake centuries before had founded the city, was last seen in the thick of the battle, but his body was never positively identified.


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